Mastercard or Visa for Foreign Purchases - Which is Cheaper for Canadians?

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Last updated on June 18, 2020 Comments: 34

With the weakening of the Canadian dollar, and travel coming around the corner, Canadians are looking for the cheapest way to travel and buy goods from the United States. To help out, we’ve done a study to determine whether Visa or MasterCard provides better foreign currency exchange rates for Canadians when using their credit card south of the border.

We also determined the best Canadian credit card for foreign transactions. Visa and MasterCard rely on different processes to determine their foreign exchange rate. Neither network makes its foreign exchange methodology public. To establish which of the two networks charge less, and how they compare to foreign exchange spot rates, we compared the historical exchange rates of Visa, MasterCard, Bloomberg and the Bank of Canada once a week for the past 52 weeks.

Visa & MasterCard Exchange Rates Compared

Here’s what we found:

  1. MasterCard charges a lower exchange rate than Visa 70% of the time
  2. MasterCard’s average exchange rate was 38 basis points (.38%) less than Visa’s over the course of the 52 data points.

Visa Mastercard Exchange Rate comparison

As the chart clearly depicts, MasterCard charges a lower exchange rate than Visa a vast majority of the time. Moreover, it wins by a greater margin, more often than Visa. As a result, if you were to have used both cards on each of the 52 days measured, you would have saved .38% using your MasterCard instead of your Visa.

In real world terms, if you had spent $5,000 in the United States, you would have saved, on average, $19 using your MasterCard instead of your Visa – not a huge nominal difference. Given that the difference between Visa and MasterCard exchange rates were only .38%, we believe cardholders should also pay significant attention to the difference in the value of each cards’ rewards program, since they can typically vary between 1% to 4% in value.

Visa & MasterCard Exchange Rates Compared To Currency Spot Rates

Here’s what we found:

  1. On average, MasterCard charged 58 basis points (.58%) more than the Bloomberg Spot rate and 49 basis points (.49%) more than the Bank of Canada mid-day exchange rate.
  2. On average, Visa charged charged 98 basis points (.98%) more than the Bloomberg Spot rate and 87 basis points (.87%) more than the Bank of Canada mid-day exchange rate.

MasterCard & Visa Exchange Rates Compared to Bloomberg Spot Rate

MC-V To BoC Spot

From the charts above, it’s clear that both Visa and MasterCard charge more than the spot rate. That said, we still do not know what methodology either network uses to determine their exchange rates. There does not seem to be a consistent margin or discernable pattern, which is slightly disconcerting when pricing and fee transparency, ought to be the goal. MasterCard should be given credit for charging about 40% less than Visa. As they move billions of dollars in foreign exchange, it’s not an insignificant difference. Oddly, Visa does appear to charge below the spot rate on several occasions. We could not figure out how or why. Regardless, Visa more than made up for it’s generosity by charging more than double MasterCard’s rate in excess of 25% of the time.

Despite the fact that both Visa and MasterCard charge more than the spot rate, they still charge a lot less than retail banks do. While MasterCard charges around 55 basis points more than the spot rate and Visa charges around 95 basis points more than the spot rate, if you exchange your Canadian dollars at the Bank, you’ll typically get charged upwards of 300 basis points. The lesson remains that one of the most cost effective ways to exchange money is through no foreign transaction fee credit cards. With exchange rate fees between 55 and 95 basis points, they are more competitive than most retail bank rates and currency exchange specialists.

However, if you use a credit card with a foreign transaction fee, which in Canada is usually around 2.5%, your total FX cost will now be between 3% and 3.5%, which become comparable to rates you can get exchanging money in your bank branch.

Best Credit Card For Foreign Transactions

We’ve changed our point of view on which credit card we’d recommend when abroad or making a US Dollar purchase. We used to be indifferent as to which Canadian credit card was selected, as long as it didn’t come with a 2.5% foreign transaction fee. No longer. We now recommend people use the no-fee Rogers Platinum Mastercard for US Dollar transactions.

Following the demise of Chase Canada’s credit cards, there are now very few credit cards in Canada that subsidize or waive foreign transaction fees. The Rogers Platinum Mastercard offers 3% cash back rewards on U.S. dollar transactions (Rogers cash back rewards can be redeemed as a statement credit), but then charges the 2.5% foreign transaction fee, for a net cash back rewards rate of 0.5% on USD purchases. If you travel frequently in a foreign country other than the United States, we recommend instead browsing our list of credit cards that waive or make up for foreign transaction fees and choosing a card that waives the fees entirely in all foreign currencies.

Author Bio

GreedyRates is Canada’s go-to resource for all things personal finance. Our expert articles and videos cover every topic under the financial sun, including credit cards, credit scores, loans, bank accounts, budgeting, investing, RSPs, TFSAs, GICs, taxes, and more. Want our advice on a personal finance issue? Send us an email at [email protected] and we’ll gladly give you some free tips.

Article comments

Zac says:

I made a purchase with my RBC Visa yesterday when the exchange was at 1.38 USD:CAD and I was charged 1.417 – that’s more than 3.5% higher! On a $5000 purchase that’s like charging over $175 as an invisible foreign transaction fee. That does not seem right to me. Is there anywhere that RBC would post their current rates for foreign VISA transactions?

Aaron Broverman says:

Hi Zac,
You should be able to see the foreign transaction fees break down on the homepage for your particular card. You just need to look up the cardholder agreement. They’re usually available if you google your particular card with those words in a .pdf format online. Go to the page of the agreement that breaks down the fees and you should see how your card handles foreign transaction fees and exchange rates.

Ricardo H Tabone says:

Unfortunately, your math is incorrect. 3.5% higher would be 1.428. The one yiu reported is 2.6% higher.

Daniel from GreedyRates says:

Hi Ricardo,
Savvy observation indeed. Thanks for confirming!

Hargun says:

Hey…I have axis banks credit card…can u use it for online shopping in Canada or cash withdrawal?

Nate Siegel says:

Hi Hargun,

Axis Bank’s credit card should work in Canada, whether in a brick and mortar store or online, and also for cash withdrawals. However, as an Indian bank that deals in Rupees you’ll likely tolerate small foreign transaction fees from your bank, as high as 3.0% in some cases. If Axis offers a no-foreign-transaction fee card, this would be better to use while abroad. Enjoy Canada!


Aaron Jones says:

A better card to use, albeit with higher qualifications limits, is the Rogers World Elite MasterCard. It offers 4% back on all Foreign exchange transactions, which after the foreign exchange transaction fee of 2.5% is deducted still leaves a reasonable 1.5% back. Also it gives 1.75% on other Canadian purchases, plus there’s NO ANNUAL FEE.

Nate Siegel says:

Hey Aaron!

Great comment, thanks for posting with us. We’re in total agreement with you on the merits of Rogers’ awesome World Elite Mastercard. With no annual fee, it’s simply amazing how much cash back you get, especially when shopping abroad. However, it’s notable that you won’t have your foreign transaction fees cancelled when using this card—it simply provides so much cash back that you’re coming out ahead on every purchase despite the fee (as you mentioned). Another thing to love about the Rogers World Elite card is the fact that you can use cash back flexibly—just pick a purchase on your statement and then select how much cash back you want to apply to it via the Pay with Rewards app.


Len says:

I believe Scotia Bank Passport card has no foreign fee on their card

The GreedyRates Team says:

Hi Len,

That’s correct. There are only a handful of credit cards with this valuable perk, and among them, the Scotiabank Passport Visa Infinite card is the zero-foreign-transaction-fee card that represents the “upper tier”. Alongside great travel insurance, six free annual passes into the airport lounge, and quick Scotia Rewards earnings, your exemption from paying any foreign fees (upwards of 2.50%) make this card an impressive savings vehicle. However, if you aren’t prepared to pay the admittedly steep annual fee of $139, the Home Trust Preferred Visa is also worth checking out as it costs $0 and also grants 1.00% cash back as well!


BubbaLovesTravelling says:

Great info. Thanks.

Terrance Tiessen says:

I have both the Home Trust Visa and the Royal Platinum. For getting foreign cash out of the ATM which is better to use?
I am guessing that Home Trust would be because they charge no FX fee, but this is assuming that Rogers would not give me the 3% reward for cash withdrawal which they give on purchases, which means that I would be hit with the FX fee. Is my reasoning correct? THanks.

The GreedyRates Team says:

Hey Terrance!

We appreciate you getting in touch with us. If you’re looking for a card that doesn’t charge a fee for withdrawing cash from an ATM abroad, you’ll have a very hard time finding one. All ATMs come with fees, often from the card network and issuer, but also from the entity which owns the ATM itself. We took a look into the fine print anyway to find what we could, and here’s a short rundown.

On the Home Trust card, your ATM charge is 1.00% of the amount withdrawn (minimum $2.50 and maximum $10.00) from a Visa ATM in Canada, 1.50% (minimum of $4.50 maximum of $45.00) in the United States, and 1.50% ($5.50 / $15.00) elsewhere—not including the ATM operator’s fee. For the Rogers card, you’ll be charged a flat $3.50 from any Canadian ATM and a flat $5.00 for any ATM abroad, and the fine print doesn’t say anything about ATM operator fees (but they’re probably there). At the end of the day, using the Rogers card at an ATM is probably cheaper, but never will it be free.


Dean says:

I did get the home trust preferred visa for use when out of country. The card doesn’t give you the ability to customize the pin. The pin they assign is the pin you’re stuck with. The card also doesn’t support tap (contactless) or Apple Pay. Most of my travel is to Europe and miss the tap option when paying but will gladly put up with it to save the foreign transaction fee. I miss the amazon card.

Glad to see the comments on the Rogers world elite card that indicate the rebate can be applied to the statement as opposed to just Rogers products – That combined with slightly better MasterCard rates, customized pin, tap support and potential applepay support (I need to verify that) is making me rethink and apply for the Rogers card and drop home trust.

The GreedyRates Team says:

Hi Dean,

We’re with you all the way, great comment. The Home Trust card is fine for most things you need it for when travelling, but it does have some odd quirks, like the inability to customize your PIN and how it frequently makes you pay for gas inside the station instead of at the pump. For a no-fee, 0.00% foreign transaction charge credit card, however, it’s easy to put up with these things. If you want a different model for avoiding foreign fees, then the Rogers card is also a great option, as you mentioned.

Keep in mind that the World Elite card is always going to look better than the Home Trust Preferred card, because it has an annual income requirement of $80,000, and the perks to justify it. It has cash back at 1.75% on all domestic spending, and then 4.00% on foreign purchases (to offset the 2.50% transaction fee and still provide 1.50% back). If you can’t make the $80,000 minimum, then consider Rogers’ Platinum Mastercard instead, which is essentially the little brother version of the World Elite card, but still in-line with what you’re looking for.


Barry says:

I just got the fee free Rogers World Elite with a 4% cash back on foreign transactions. I tried it out on Friday for a small US dollar amount at the pump ( I live by the border). I was debited CDN$14.41 for US$11 charge. The cash back posted on my rewards account today (but not sure which day the exchange was processed) was 57 cents (4% of $14.41). So … subtract .57 from $14.41 and divide by 11 … can’t think of any other credit card that gives such a bang for your CC buck!

Not only that but they also gave me $25 just for using the card. You can now get your rewards credited to your January account without phoning before Dec. 1st. It’s done automatically but you have to phone to set it up. I believe this is new.

Stacey says:

Thanks for sharing your insight from your research. That was really good to know. I was debating between the recommended Rogers cards and Scotiabank Infinite Passport Visa card, after the sad demise of the Chase Amazon and Marriot rewards card… in the end, I chose Scotiabank card. Although the cashback from Rogers card looks better with a lower annual fee, it is a dead end for people like me who don’t do business with Rogers. aka, the statement credit is useless to me. Really hope it can tun into points or straight cashback then I’ll switch over

The GreedyRates Team says:

Greetings Stacey,

Thanks for the appreciation! We’re glad you took our guidance to heart and did your own research as well. We hope you enjoy the Scotiabank Passport Visa Infinite card but have little doubt that it will suit you, especially with its total exemption from foreign transaction fees, six VIP airport lounge passes per year, excellent insurance package and fast system for earning Scotia rewards. We think you probably did yourself a service getting it over the Rogers card, especially if you like to enjoy the luxury that airport lounges offer someone who tends to find themselves on many long layovers.

However, we think you may have gotten the wrong idea about Rogers in terms of its cash back flexibility. Though the card’s website states that one can only redeem it against their statement once year, or for Rogers products and services, we know that the Rogers cards all support payment via the Pay with Rewards application. This handy app comes courtesy of Mastercard, allowing you to see a running list of the purchases on your recent statement, and use your cash back to pay them off on-demand. If this sounds interesting, then you have a reason to make the switch, or to simply use them both to see how they compare. Let us know!

GreedyRates Staff

Tony says:

Why not the HomeTrust Mastercard with 1% cashback with Foreign Transaction Fee?

The GreedyRates Team says:

Hey Tony!

Awesome observation. The Home Trust Preferred Visa is another great way to save money
when you’re travelling, by eliminating the pesky foreign transaction fees from every purchase
made in another currency. However, remember that there are no Home Trust Mastercards, just
Visa cards, which could be a contentious issue for some. Home Trust is unique in that their
Preferred card has no annual fee and offers total exemption from these fees.

Rogers cards—like the Platinum Mastercard and World Elite Mastercard—aren’t exactly the
same. They merely offset foreign transaction fees by offering cash back on purchases made in
foreign currencies, which can result in tangible earnings for buying items abroad. The
Scotiabank Passport Visa Infinite card is the only other card to completely remove foreign
transaction fees, but it costs $139 per year to hold.

In essence, the Home Trust Preferred is often seen as one of the best in its category. After the
Amazon card by Chase Bank was taken off the Canadian market, people applied in droves for
the card and severely slowed down the rate at which Home Trust could approve these
applications. Home Trust is now processing applications much quicker than they used to,
however, and estimate that your card will be on its way within 2-4 weeks. Let us know if you
need anything else!

GreedyRates Staff

Piyush says:

Can i know the Exchange rate fee of Tripadvisor, visa, mastercard and axis international card ?

Michael says:

Hi Piyush! It’s important to remember that TripAdvisor is a business based in the United States, so unless you are given the option on checkout to pay with $CAD, using other currencies to book travel arrangements (even ones in Canada) with a Canadian card will add a foreign transaction fee of around 2.5 to 3.0%. This is common throughout all US business and can be avoided by using a card with no foreign transaction fees like the Home Trust Preferred card. You can learn more about it by checking out our complete Home Trust Preferred Card review, or you can apply directly via this link. Alternatively, the Rogers Mastercard will incur the 2.5% foreign transaction fee, but balances it out by rewarding the cardholder with 4.0% cash back for every foreign currency transaction. You can learn more about that card by reading our Rogers Mastercard Review, or you can apply for the card directly via this link.

Mike says:

Rogers now also offers the Fido Mastercard, which has the exact same deal on foreign purchases, but unlike the Platinum card has no annual fee.

Mike G. says:

BS – just went to their site and what you are purporting is not the case.

François says:

great work. Curious, why is the recommendation ” We now recommend people use the no-fee Rogers Platinum MasterCard for US Dollar transactions.” What are they doing differently for other currencies that would make you not recommend Rogers?

GreedyRates says:

Hi François,

Thanks for the kind words! Our analysis only compared the foreign exchange rates of MasterCard versus Visa with respect to the Canadian dollar versus the U.S. Dollar. We would have to do a separate analysis to form a conclusion as to which network provides a better exchange rate for the CDN dollar versus other international currencies. It’s very possible the network are more or less competitive relative to each other in different currency markets.

That said, it’s clear to us that MasterCard is better for Canadians the majority of time purchasing goods in USD, hence our recommendation of the Rogers MasterCard.

Nice catch though!

GreedyRates Staff

François says:

thanks, i was just curious since the title was about Foreign, but the conclusion was that it was only better for US$, so i thought you found something else in your study.
maybe i’m minority but most of my travels are not in country that use US$, and those that do credit card use is generally highly punitive (like 4-5% surcharge), so this is why i was curious.

Gil says:

Thanks for the info on the Rogers Mastercard, saw the info on your site and applied and received the card a month ago. Wanted this card for travel to the US, Already received the 35.00 bonus and have racked up 110.00 in cash back so far. We don’t normally use Credit Cards but the conversion at the bank for Cash is obscene to say the least. Seems like the best option plus where I use telephone banking I can stay on top of payments usually two days from my bank to the card. (Dont have to worry about exceeding the limit and any over limit charges.) Thanks agin

Norah says:

Hi. When travelling in Europe where master card is accepted, is it still better to use the Rogers master card, instead of cash?

GreedyRates says:

Hi Norah,

Great question. If the alternative is for you to exchange your Canadian dollars for Euros at a retail bank (or worse at an airport, hotel or foreign currency exchange booth), then you will get a better currency conversion rate with your Rogers MasterCard, and it will be the preferred method.

You will still be charged fairly close to the spot (interbank) rate when using the Rogers MasterCard in Europe, with no additional foreign transaction fees from Rogers. When converting your Canadian dollars to Euros at the bank you will likely get charged a fee closer to 2.5% to 3.5% on top of the spot rate (they don’t have to reveal their fees, it’s included in their exchange rate.)

GreedyRates Staff

Bill says:

Couple of important facts that have been omitted in the comparison, specifically between the Rogers MasterCard and the Amazon Visa.

1. The Rogers cash-back can only be applied to purchases in the Rogers store or towards a Rogers bill. If you are not a Rogers subscriber, not of much use.

2. The Rogers card has a $29 annual fee (waived for the first year, and if you have your Rogers bill set up for pre-authorized payment). The Amazon Visa has no annual fee.

The Rogers card could be good as long as you are a Rogers customer, otherwise the Amazon Visa is clearly superior. This is not the conclusion reached by the article.

GreedyRates says:

Hi Bill,

Your comment raises a common misconception with respect to the Rogers MasterCard:

1. The Rogers cash back can be applied as a statement credit against any purchases, not just Rogers purchases. It’s in the disclosure statement as follows: “Or, contact Rogers Bank once per year to receive an annual statement credit for value of rewards earned during that period.”

We are not sure why Rogers does not highlight this point, although we imagine they want to encourage people to redeem for Rogers goods and services. That said, we have verified with Rogers directly that you can indeed redeem your cash back as a statement credit – not just for Rogers goods and services.

2. You are correct with respect to the annual fee. Although our feeling is for non-Rogers customers, the first year annual fee waiver, and $35 welcome bonus, make it free for effectively 2 years (the annual fee is only $29) – long enough to make it worthwhile for most. Obviously for Rogers customers there is no annual fee if they put their bill on pre-authorized payment.

Hope that helps,

GreedyRates Staff

Bobbob says:

For non-USA travel, I see how the Rogers card can be beneficial, however for USA travel, why not just get a USD denominated credit card?

GreedyRates says:

Hi Bob,

The reason why the Rogers card is better than using a USD card for USA travel, is because it offers a better exchange rate. When using the USD card, you still have to exchange your Canadian dollars to US dollars in the bank, and then pay your USD credit card statement in US dollars. The exchange rate the bank will charge in branch will be far higher than the exchange rate on Rogers’ no foreign transaction fee card.

GreedyRates Staff